Mount Airy’s Immigrant Innovation Hub welcomes new Americans and sparks economic development

Photo by Mark Likosky

Photo by Mark Likosky

American Dreams

by Alex Jones

Denise Williams comes from a family of entrepreneurs. After arriving in the United States from Thailand in 1989, Williams’ mother started a staffing agency to serve the Asian-American community. In 2009, Williams, who is Vietnamese, started Madison Birch, the Old City-based staffing agency that works with clients who serve international brands, such as Nike and DuPont.

But it wasn’t until she heard about the Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub, or I-Hub, that Williams was able to truly follow in her mother’s footsteps and create a business that strengthened her local community. 

The center is a collaboration among Mt. Airy USA, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and mission-driven nonprofit lender Finanta. It provides the networking, resources and expertise to help new Americans start their own businesses. 

“[I-Hub staff were] extremely supportive in terms of developing a new audience [and helping] with paperwork,” said Williams, who completed an earlier iteration of the course in 2016. Would-be entrepreneurs, who are welcome to participate regardless of immigration status, attend an intensive three-week series of workshops held at Work Mt. Airy, a co-working space run by Mt. Airy USA. 

“Any kind of support that I asked for, they were ready to go,” Williams said.

The no-cost course covers business planning, marketing and financials. Credit-building exercises are also available for those looking to gain access to capital through Finanta.

At the I-Hub, entrepreneurs are encouraged to share ideas and network with each other. During her session, Williams connected with an entrepreneur from Kenya who ran a home health care agency. He was having trouble finding workers who could better serve his Asian-American clients, who often didn’t share the same language or cultural conventions as his staff. 

Williams was able to address these needs, collaborating with her fellow entrepreneur to provide workers who could keep his clients happy—and well-cared for.

“A lot of Asian elders, especially in these communities, don’t know that there are government programs to help them,” said Williams. With her experience and connection to these communities, Williams can pull from a pool of workers and match them with clients for the best fit. “They can bridge language and literacy barriers, so they can help [clients] access those programs.”

This way, Philly I-Hub and its clients are able to positively impact Philadelphians in ways beyond simply boosting economic growth: They’re identifying, communicating and meeting the needs of those in communities that may be underserved. 

“That outcome isn’t something we had ever even thought about. It was a stepping-back moment for us,” said Sarajane Blair, managing director at Mt. Airy USA. “Entrepreneurs are plugging holes in their [own] communities.”

After spending 2016 refining its programming, the creators of Philly I-Hub consider the program a success so far. Part of Mt. Airy USA’s motivation for starting the program is that although the city has been gaining population, in part due to growing immigrant communities, most of that growth is concentrated in South, Southwest, and Northeast neighborhoods, while Northwest Philadelphia’s population has gone down. The initiative was designed in hopes that more new Americans would be drawn to that part of the city. 

Since then, entrepreneurs who have participated in the program have opened an optometry practice, started a samosa business, and developed an app to connect day laborers to contractors and construction projects in need of workers. 

“It’s been pretty amazing,” Blair said. “We have not had a serious focused marketing effort, and we’ve had people come from all over the city and all different sectors.”

 The next steps for the I-Hub involve securing funding to grow the project beyond its 18-month startup phase, conducting outreach to more potential entrepreneurs and adding a mentorship component, in which graduates of the program could help coach new participants. Organizers are also considering opening the program to any would-be business owner, not just those who are new to the U.S.

After her experience with the program, Denise Williams has some advice for entrepreneurs looking to start their own business: Pay a visit to the Philly I-Hub. 

“Make a commitment. Come every day,” she said. “Don’t be shy, and ask lots of questions. [The staff] share invaluable things.”